A lot has been written about the current ‘scandal’ concerning John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, and his relationship with a woman described as a sex worker. Many questions have been asked – not least why the press didn’t publish the story until effectively forced into it by a combination of online media, social media, and the pressure group Hacked Off. Was the story suppressed as a result of some secret deal? Was it being held over Whittingdale’s head to stop him from bringing forward stronger regulation of the press? Was it being used as leverage by Murdoch and others? As the Labour’s shadow cabinet minister Chris Bryant put it, “It seems the press were quite deliberately holding a sword of Damocles over John Whittingdale.”
However interesting these questions and the answers to them might be, they rather miss some key privacy points – and indeed the point of privacy, and the problems with the way that the press operates. The focus has been on John Whittingdale as a politician, and on the woman concerned as a sex worker.Both of them, however, are people. Human beings. Not just a politician and a sex worker. And people need and deserve privacy.
In relation to the press, the focus has been on whether or not they publish the story – but the publication is only the last part of the process, and far from the only important part of the process. Privacy is not just invaded when a story about someone’s private life is published, it is invaded through the process that the story is obtained – and in this case, that part of the invasion of privacy had a significant impact. It was the press, in practice, who broke up the relationship. They dug into Whittingdale’s private life, found out who he was in a relationship with, and then told him. By Whittingdale’s own account, when he discovered what her profession was, he broke off the relationship.
We need to think about that a little. The press invaded the privacy of two individuals who were not doing anything illegal, and broke up their relationship. Consenting adults, in a relationship, had that relationship broken up.
Does the fact that the woman involved was a sex worker mean that’s OK? Are sex workers not allowed to have private lives? To have relationships? To have any rights at all?
The press should not be getting up on their high horse and complaining that they’re being attacked for doing exactly what Leveson etc told them they should do by not publishing the story – because their actions in obtaining the story were deeply damaging in the first place.
Hacked Off, however, should also not be proud of their own actions in forcing this story out into the public domain – and certainly not without considering, and considering very seriously, the rights of both John Whittingdale and the woman concerned. The latter seems to have been treated as just a prop in a big political story, by almost everyone. That really should not be acceptable.
UPDATE AND AMENDMENT (3 May 2016)
Evan Harris of Hacked Off has replied to my piece – his full comment is below. This is the substantial part of his response:
“It is totally incorrect for you say – without any source – to say that “the press was “effectively forced into” publishing the story “by a combination of online media, social media, and the pressure group Hacked Off.” This was an assertion made by the Daily Mail, the Times, the Telegraph and the Sun but with never a shred of evidence to back it up.
It seems the allegations had been on twitter for several months and Hacked Off never tweeted about it nor re-tweeted any of those tweets. The story (and allegations of the press withholding publication for political not ethical reasons ) was then published on Byline.com on 1st April. There was no comment, tweet or link from Hacked Off. On 10th April, Jim Cusick, a senior broadsheet journalist, then published a more detailed story – with sources for the allegations of political motivations for non-publication – on Byline.com and Open Democracy. Hacked Off published a blog-post that evening commenting on the allegations of a “cover-up”, but which did not repeat the personal matters.
Our next public comments only occurred after publication of the same allegations of political reasons behind press non-publication by Private Eye and Newsnight. It was Private Eye and the BBC that either embarrassed the newspapers into publication or legitimised their doing so, with the Mail on Sunday producing a 2 page spread with new personal life allegations (mostly with little public interest justification of itself)
I am surprised that you repeat attacks on us made by the press without providing (or even linking to) any justification. For the readers of your excellent blog here is our approach http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/content/hacked-why-we-are-not-hypocrites-over-stance-john-whittingdales-privacy.”
I would like to confirm that I agree with most of what Evan says – and that my suggestion of the press being ‘effectively forced into publishing the story’ was really about Byline and the social media, not about Hacked Off, and that Hacked Off did not repeat or mention the personal issues and private matters.
I remain concerned, however, that the privacy of the woman concerned has been treated – not by Hacked Off directly – as collateral damage, and that her position has been largely ignored, making the story only about Whittingdale. Again, I do not mean this to be about Hacked Off, and can see all too well how certain elements of the press have tried to use this as yet another tool to try to undermine Hacked Off as an organisation.
I would also like to add that as the Hillsborough verdict has emphasised, the position of the press in our society remains one that needs close and careful consideration, and that Hacked Off have played and continue to play a key part in debate over press ethics and press activities. Personally, I think that ‘Leveson 2’, examining the relationship between the press and the police, really needs to happen and happen soon.
3 May 2016